Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Politics of Cooking

A UC Berkeley panel discussion features a lineup of all-star chefs and other heroes of the culinary world.

by Luke Tsai
Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 4:00 AM

If there's such a thing as food-nerd heaven, maybe it's a college course taught by Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma), playing host to a rock-star lineup of speakers that includes farmers, food activists, and some of the Bay Area's most-respected chefs. That's the gist of Edible Education 103: Telling Stories About Food and Agriculture, a sixteen-week class on food politics sponsored by Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project and open to all UC Berkeley students: Yes, the revolution will be brought to you by Chez Panisse, and there will (occasionally) be refreshments.

In short, Cal students have got it good. Luckily, the class is also open to the public — three hundred free seats each week, available by reservation a week in advance. So it was that I found myself in Wheeler Hall last Tuesday night for a cooking talk led by a panel of heavyweights: Jerome Waag (executive chef of Chez Panisse), Charlie Hallowell (chef-owner of Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service), Samin Nosrat (cooking teacher and former Eccolo sous chef), and Harold McGee (probably the most well-known authority on the science of cooking).

The talk began with Pollan making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Roman historian Livy's assertion that when the chefs become celebrities, it's a sure sign that a society is in decline; it ended with a sampling of the sweet Early Girl tomato sauce that the chefs spent an hour and a half lovingly simmering, stirring, and straining. (Needless to say, it was delicious.)

Here are five takeaways from the discussion that took place in between:

1. If you aspire to make a name for yourself in the restaurant world, bus tables at Chez Panisse.

It turns out that the notion of working your way up from the very bottom of the ladder really can happen in the restaurant industry — at least at Chez Panisse, where all three of the featured chefs launched their careers.

Nosrat was a journalism student at UC Berkeley when she ate her first meal at Chez Panisse, after having scrimped and saved for months, and was so inspired that it changed the course of her life; she applied for a job as a busser at the restaurant soon after. For her, Chez Panisse was the ultimate happy place. She was so smitten that she'd think to herself, "I can't believe they're trusting me with vacuuming the downstairs [restaurant]."

Meanwhile, Waag, a native of Provence, France, also started his career, in his early twenties, as a Chez Panisse busboy — one who, by his own account, was so terrible at bussing tables that his employers ended up sending him to the kitchen instead (!).

2. The food biz is where former English majors go to die.

None of the panelists intended to dedicate their lives to cooking: Hallowell was an English lit major and aspiring scholar of Chinese literature who only applied for a cooking job when he suddenly found himself with a young family to support. McGee, holder of the rare Bachelor of Science degree in English, said he got into food science after he wrote a thesis about Keats and, shockingly, couldn't find a job. And Nosrat was planning to become a full-time journalist when she realized that those jobs didn't really exist anymore — so she became a cook instead (a line of reasoning that I, understandably, found both inspiring and depressing).

3. Forget meditation; try cooking.

Several panelists boiled down the politics of cooking to the idea of mindfulness — of being fully engaged and present in the world. Nosrat described cooking as "a form of meditation": the moment you stop paying attention, the dish inevitably gets ruined, no matter how many times you've made it before.

Waag talked about how Chez Panisse has a terrible stove, basically the cheapest kind you can buy (really?), and how most dishes are cooked directly in fire. It's a method that's so fickle, you have no choice but to be completely engaged in what you're doing — unlike the style of cooking "where you put something in a water bath at a certain temperature for a certain time," Waag said.

4. Good food is expensive, except when it isn't.

Near the end of the evening, Pollan brought up the elephant in the room: How would the chefs respond to critics who say their restaurants are too expensive to be accessible to the masses?

Waag's answer — alluding to the cost of supporting small farmers and the fact that similar restaurants charge two or three times as much as Chez Panisse — wasn't altogether satisfying, even if it was accurate. And Hallowell's response, which addressed the expense inherent in training his employees to really know how to cook (not just heat up frozen, pre-assembled dishes), probably won't do much to convince lower-income folks that Pizzaiolo is a great deal.

Nevertheless, one of the evening's most enticing revelations came when Hallowell said he would love to open a restaurant with a menu built around $5 plates of rice and beans. Let it be so!

5. "The world is trying to steal your humanity. Cooks are trying to help you steal it back."

That's Hallowell again, with the applause line that summed up the evening's central theme.

For those interested, upcoming Edible Education class sessions will feature such luminaries as Alice Waters herself and the activist Raj Patel. The class is always on Tuesdays, from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Sign up online at EdibleSchoolyard.org/news-events/events.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Now Open in Oakland: Grand Lake Kitchen

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Last week, Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood welcomed the newest addition to its ever-improving dining scene: Grand Lake Kitchen (576 Grand Ave.), a deli specializing in sandwiches, soups, and a variety of prepared-food items.

It’s the first restaurant venture for husband-and-wife owners Dave Wasem and May Seto — previously, Wasem was a sous chef at San Francisco’s Park Tavern; Seto was general manager at Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina, also in San Francisco.

More …

Tags: , , , ,

The Politics of Cooking: A Night of Edible Education at UC Berkeley

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

If there’s such a thing as food-nerd heaven, maybe it’s a college course taught by Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, etc.), one of America’s foremost thinkers on the ethics and politics of food, playing host to a rock-star lineup of speakers that includes farmers, food activists, and some of the Bay Area’s most-respected chefs. That’s the gist of Edible Education 103: Telling Stories About Food and Agriculture, a sixteen-week class on food politics sponsored by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project and open to all UC Berkeley students: Yes, the revolution will be brought to you by Chez Panisse, and there will (occasionally) be refreshments.

More …

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mid-Week Menu: Box and Bells, Lungomare, and Fancy Thanksgiving Takeout

by Luke Tsai
Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Welcome to the Mid-Week Menu, our weekly roundup of East Bay food news.

1) Inside Scoop has the latest on James Syhabout’s new project in the just-shuttered Somerset space (5912 College Ave.). The restaurant will be called Box and Bells, and some menu ideas that Syhabout and chef Daniel Coe are bandying about include such curiosity-piquers as potato boxty (a kind of pancake, apparently) with salt cod and herbs, fried chicken with raw oyster mayonnaise (raw oyster whaaat??), and cote du boef with a fricassee of snails. According to Inside Scoop, there will be a series of preview dinners at Syhabout’s other spin-off, Hawker Fare, probably starting in January.

More …

Standing Up for Whole Wheat

Community Grains is trying to dispel myths about whole grains, and says false marketing has misled consumers.

by Luke Tsai
Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Relegated to the status of "healthy" toast option at the local greasy spoon, or — worse yet — weird pasta dishes that "real" Italians snub their noses at, whole wheat has long been an awkward stepchild of the health food movement: a boon for school cafeterias and diabetics, perhaps, but for finicky gourmands? Whole wheat just didn't seem to have a place.

Here's what Bob Klein, the owner of Oakland's Oliveto Restaurant (5655 College Ave.), wants you to know: Most of what's marketed as "whole wheat" isn't really whole wheat at all. And once you've eaten, say, pizza or pasta made from the real stuff, it'll put to rest the notion that you need any other reason beyond sheer deliciousness to make whole wheat a regular part of your diet.

For the past five years, the company Klein founded, Community Grains, has been on a mission to rehabilitate the image of whole wheat — along with various other whole grains — from the perspective of both health and taste.

Klein said that his interest in whole grains started out as nothing more than curiosity — a sense that despite everything else that the locavore food movement had taught him, he still knew surprisingly little about one of our most basic staples: wheat. He didn't know how wheat grew or how it was processed; he didn't know what different varieties there were.

And so Community Grains was started as a facilitator for an ongoing dialogue between farmers, millers, bakers, and chefs. It has also functioned as an extended research project, complete with a "science committee" — Michael Pollan is a member.

Among Klein's discoveries along the way: The stuff that's labeled "whole wheat" at the supermarket usually isn't whole wheat at all. The process by which flour is made, industrially, consists of "roller milling" wheat in order to strip off the bran and the germ, leaving behind the endosperm — the white stuff, which has little nutritional value. For most commercial "whole-wheat" flours, the flour is reconstituted after this milling process, with the bran and the germ added back in — but often not all of it and, because it was stripped off to begin with, in a much less nutritious form.

By contrast, Klein stressed that Community Grains only sells true whole-grain products: flours and polentas and so forth wherein the entire seed is stone ground.

"Nothing is added; nothing is removed," Klein said. "That's whole grain, in our definition."

Because so many other supposed whole-grain products don't operate under the same standards, Klein said he's also pushing for increased transparency when it comes to labeling. All of Community Grains' products are labeled with a clear and specific definition of "whole grain." And the company is about to launch its first "identity preserved wheat" product — a fusilli that will include on its label a wealth of information about the wheat: who developed the particular variety, the farm where it was grown, when exactly it was harvest and milled, and so forth.

"We think this is basic information that should be available. It's all relevant; none of it is for show," Klein said.

According to Klein, biochemists have only begun to understand the nutritional benefits of true whole grains. But, as a restaurateur, he believes the taste benefits are indisputable. After all, he says, the germ of the wheat is where the fat is, and the fat is where much of the flavor comes from.

One local restaurant that's embraced Community Grains' line of whole-grain products is Chop Bar (247 4th St., Oakland), where you'll find an assortment of whole-grain muffins, scones, and other baked goods. Chef and co-owner Lev Delaney's favorites include a "spectacular" rosemary shortbread cookie and a cornbread (made from a mix of whole-grain cornmeal and red winter wheat flour) that he serves during the restaurant's monthly summer pig roasts.

"[The whole-grain items] help us create a unique identity with the stuff that we bake," Delaney said.

Meanwhile, at Oliveto, Chef Jonah Rhodehamel said he isn't ready to scrap traditional white-flour pastas altogether, but he has found several applications where he prefers using whole-grain flour, strictly from a flavor standpoint. In particular, he cited his penne bolognese, which uses fresh penne made from red winter wheat flour. According to Rhodehamel, the earthy, nutty flavor of that particular wheat varietal is hearty enough to stand up to a full-flavored sauce like the bolognese; traditional white-flour pasta just gets overwhelmed.

"[The whole wheat] gives the pasta so much more depth and makes it a component in the dish instead of just being a canvas," he explained.

The bolognese wasn't on the menu during a recent lunch visit to Oliveto's downstairs cafe, so I ordered the penne pomodoro instead — a wonderful rendition of a classic. The texture of the pasta was perfect, and, as promised, there was a nuttiness and slight sweetness to it that stood up to the tangy, spicy tomato sauce.

As Rhodehamel had said, the pasta wasn't just a blank canvas. It had a taste and texture that were interesting — and delicious — in their own right.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Standing Up for Whole Wheat

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 2:00 PM

Relegated to the status of "healthy" toast option at the local greasy spoon, or — worse yet — weird pasta dishes that “real” Italians snub their noses at, whole wheat has long been an awkward stepchild of the health food movement: a boon for school cafeterias and diabetics, perhaps, but for finicky gourmands? Whole wheat just didn’t seem to have a place.

Here’s what Bob Klein, the owner of Oakland’s Oliveto Restaurant (5655 College Ave.), wants you to know: Most of what’s marketed as “whole wheat” isn’t really whole wheat at all. What’s more, he argues, once you’ve eaten, say, a pizza or pasta made from the real stuff, it’ll put to rest the notion that you need any other reason beyond sheer deliciousness to make whole wheat a regular part of your diet.

More …

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Soup for the Sick

by Luke Tsai
Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Whatever the reason, whether my poor sleep habits or the fickle weather, I woke up the other day with a wicked head cold. So, 80-degree forecasts for the week notwithstanding, I’ve been on the hunt for “sick food” — for something to conjure Mom’s ministrations during childhood bouts with flu: bowls of comfortingly bland congee or Chinese-herb-infused chicken soup, or their Western analogues. Where to go?

More …

Tags: , , , , ,

Most Popular Stories

© 2019 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation